Daniel Rubin: Out of touch in a crowd of thousands

Posted: September 04, 2012

So how do you create buzz when you can't get a signal?

That mega-festival this weekend that sought to turn the Parkway into a Woodstock for millennials cost the city untold dollars (particularly because the city isn't saying yet how much it spent).

But the other half of the equation was how much Philadelphia would make - particularly from the word-of-mouth - for pulling off a top-shelf show sponsored by Budweiser, curated by Jay-Z, and endured by those unfortunate enough to live within thumping distance.

A lot of that goodwill was placed on hold as the gathering of tweeting, texting, posting, and yakking concertgoers killed cellphone reception for several hours of Saturday's show.

My plan for the Budweiser Made in America Festival was to heed what people were saying on social media. Geofeedia had set up a way I could monitor Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, and Picasa for posts that originated from within a polygon the amasser had drawn around the Parkway.

Almost everything I read on Saturday was a rave. The problem was there wasn't much to read.

Good notices were coming in from far away. Emmaleigh Doley, 29, a communications consultant from Philadelphia, was at the airport in Copenhagen when she remembered YouTube was streaming live video of the festival.

"The Ben Franklin Parkway looks great!" she tweeted. But Doley doesn't need to be sold on Philly.

Less enthusiasm came from those on the scene. Matt Gibstein, 20, of Miami, is a Penn sophomore who studies science, technology, and society. He'd gone to the festival with a bunch of friends from school. He was expecting to use his phone to stay in touch. His after-the-fact tweets were screeds.

"I had no coverage for the entirety of the event," the AT&T customer said by phone after Saturday's show. "I was not able to send a single text, make a single call, check Twitter, send an e-mail."

He had lots of company. Some sample tweets that got through:

"Cell service going in and out."

"Festivals need to come w wifi or extra cell towers for real."

One of the complainers used the dreaded "phillyproblems" hashtag with her post, adding "no reception" to a compendium of municipal failures. This happens a lot at the big music festivals. Even the tech-savvy South by Southwest couldn't handle cell traffic initially.

People who work the festival circuit said Sunday they get around the connectivity issue by bringing in their own wireless networks or by resorting to more ancient measures to communicate.

"We use a runner," said Ike Richman, spokesman for Comcast-Spectacor.

The best-wired shows bring in a forest of temporary towers. It helps when the cosponsor is a telecom company. A Verizon spokesman told reporters Saturday the loss of coverage was a mere "hiccup."

Unfortunately, it happened just when Philly was stepping to the mike.

On Sunday, cellphone reception was improved. If the city wants good buzz, it should consider improving connectivity for next year, should the festival return.

A row of servers placed between the food trucks allowed people working at the show to use private wireless signals. Couldn't that be offered to concertgoers? There might even be more money in the idea.

At SXSW this year, homeless people were hired to walk around as human hot spots. That might be a little cold for Philadelphia.

But college kids in backpacks? I mentioned that to a Live Nation employee. He suggested T-shirts that said: "I'm hot."

There is the possibility, of course, that without a phone to capture the moment, we might actually be in the moment.

Unable to share Saturday, Gibstein, the Penn student, kept his phone in his pocket. "So I just sat there and watched the concert," he said.

Imagine that.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin

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